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Real problems in an industrial setting

Neil Hutton reports on Crest the equivalent of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme for technology and, below, sees a project in action. It is one of the tasks of engineers at AEI Cables of Birtley, County Durham, to determine the most appropriate electrical cable for use in the working conditions specified by their customers.

Cables can be as thick as six inches in diameter, or just a fraction of an inch across, depending on temperature, phase and cost considerations. An Electrical Research Association report with a complicated set of rules is used by the firm's engineers to decide on the most appropriate rating for the job.

That was until Andrew Dent and David Robson of Stockton Sixth Form Centre came along. Andrew and David are students working for a Crest award. The Stockton students set themselves the task of designing and making a piece of software that would do all that was needed to satisfy the rules and AEI Cable's customers.

The project started on the factory floor, where the two students were allowed time to put the problem into the context of the working environment. This was also where the constraints of a particular technological setting were learned as the students realised that their design had to be compatible with the existing programs used at AEI.

Andrew and David were able to transfer the Electrical Research Association report's rules into a programmable form and start to design the proposed solution. The complexity of the problem and the time constraints forced them to seek a "cut-down" solution which would be workable but without some of the more sophisticated options.

The final output was evaluated by representatives from AEI, who praised the students for "coping admirably with such an unfamiliar and demanding program". Now the students will write a report and submit it for consideration for a Crest award.

Both students say the experience confirmed their desire to pursue a career in computers and engineering. Their supervisors from Stockton college, David Dodds and Sheila Picking, say the experience gained on a Crest project is very good for the students, not least because they have to learn to cope with the real life problems that an industrial setting throws up.

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